The way Swedish filmmaker Niclas Larsson describes his trickery of an all-star cast for Mother Couch – led by Ellen Burstyn, Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Lara Flynn Boyle, Taylor Russell and F. Murray Abraham – you’d have thought he’d mined a CIA manual for Cold War field agents to shoot his directorial debut on a soundstage in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I think a powerful tool for directors is to actually misdirect,” Larsson, a former child actor turned filmmaker, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Mother Couch, based on the existential novel Mamma i Soffa by Swedish novelist Jerker Virdborg, takes place entirely in a remote furniture store, where Mother (Burstyn) is seated on a green couch and refuses to get up and leave.
That has her three estranged children – David (McGregor), Gruffudd (Ifans) and Linda (Boyle) — questioning with varied trust and disloyalty why their mother won’t return home.
Aided by eccentric furniture store managers played by Russell and Abraham, David, with equal turns of gentleness and aggression, asks why his family is in the furniture store at all before their mind-bending journey builds unexpectedly to a chaotic, yet cathartic climax.
Larsson becomes a master of illusion and confusion to create a movie where what the audience assumes up to a certain point about the furniture store and its occupants must be completely reappraised at the end of Mother Couch.
“You need to feel completely confused until you aren’t,” he adds as Mother Couch becomes a near-relation to other legendary misdirection movies like A Beautiful Mind and The Sixth Sense.
THR talked to the Swedish director — known for his award-winning Volvo and Mercedes-Benz TV commercials and short films before bringing his debut feature to Toronto — about deception and misdirection on his film set to achieve narrative backflips and twists for the Mother Couch audience that he hopes no one will ever see coming.
Most of your movie takes place in a furniture store. You’re from Sweden. I’m assuming you had IKEA in mind as the inspiration for your movie’s location?
Of course. I mean, it’s sort of embedded in our bloodstream as Scandinavians. The go-to shop in Sweden if you want to refurbish your room as a child, or when you’re moving out of your parent’s house or whatever you go, you shop at IKEA. Even our football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he even praises IKEA. As a teen, it was a challenge for my friends to stay overnight in IKEA in make-believe apartments and bedrooms and bathrooms until the night guards threw us out. And that’s sort of the beauty of Mother Couch, that the setup has the exterior walls as a furniture store. But as a film, it starts to change, and I hope at the end of the film it feels exactly like a house or apartment. It’s a metamorphosis in the audience’s mind: Are we still in the furniture store, or are we deep in her house and where David grew up?
That’s where your movie is sly for being designed to trick audiences, made to assume one thing up to the point they must completely change their mind near the ending of Mother Couch.
When I started writing this film, I asked myself how, in a visual way, can we dive deep into someone’s subconscious, someone’s mind and memories? I thought, what if we start to change the space? So in pre-production, I already knew I would build a furniture store on a soundstage because I needed control. But first, we had to find Mother’s house, where David grew up. And when we did that, we could replicate the colors, the textures, and even the furniture. It’s an exact replica.
Directing a film calls for illusion and imagination, but you had to reference a real house to recreate a furniture store on a soundstage, right?
I believe as filmmakers, we create, we alter reality one way or the other. You build that lie and you want to make that lie be as good as possible for the audience So yes, the short answer is yes. It was very important for me to see everything and believe in everything and the textures in order to recreate real lives. Because if I didn’t have a house, I wouldn’t have been able to create small things. Decisions of how far away is that couch to a window or the proximity of rooms and stuff. Yes, as an artist, I need to see it, and I need to have a clear reference point of where I take my own lie.
The idea of living in a location rather than creating it in your mind sounds very Method and Ellen Burstyn is a legendary student of Lee Strasberg.
Even though Ellen Burstyn has no actual scenes in the real house – she only exists in the furniture store – it was very important for me that she experience the real house too. So I invited Ellen to the real house. I had her roam on her own in the house for a couple hours with her assistant. I didn’t interfere, and I told her, “Just let me know when you’re done.” And even as she experienced the film while sitting in the furniture store, she slowly came to realize, “Oh, this is the house and I remember that table.” “Yes, that’s your table,” I told her.
Your painstaking attention to detail for the furniture store would have come to little were it not for Taylor Russell, Ewan McGregor, F. Murray Abraham, Lara Flynn Boyle and Rhys Ifans performing so impressively, alongside Burstyn. It’s your debut feature. How did you assemble that stellar cast?
I’m obsessed with actors. I was a child actor back in the day. I quit when I was 17 years old, and I was fantasizing about having this great ensemble, with the best actors. But it’s my first feature and, in the back of my head, I thought it’s probably going to end up being regular Joes, and it’s going to be a small indie film. Still, I always think you should aim high, and Ewan was my first choice. He has a vulnerability, a sensitivity about him that I’ve seen in his previous work, and I’m obsessed with. I don’t know what I did, but I just sent him the script. And, within a week, he gets back with: “Let’s do this. This is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Why wouldn’t I do this? Can you shoot in October?” “Hell yeah,” I said, “I just need to find the rest of the cast.” It was unexpected and a dream come true. And in doing short films, I always cast people who were way better than me, so they pushed me, instead of I pushing them. So having someone like Ewan and Ellen Burstyn, Her Majesty, in the same room, asking me real questions about character, pushing me to truly make them understand what they would go through, was why this film is the film it is. No regular actor can do this. It’s a highly complex film.
Mother Couch is a bit of a puzzle to work out for the audience. So, as you explained to McGregor and Burstyn where you were taking them with your camera, did you know yourself?
I had to be the only one, maybe, knowing exactly why and where. So, during prep, I wrote a book to everybody. It was 140 pages, with nine chapters. And I had to explain on a literal level where we were going. And I decided not to give my actors this book because I needed them to go there, with myself as the mediator. So, everybody else in the production team on a very literal level knew where we were going, in practice. And it wasn’t until the second week of shooting with Ellen when she whispered in my ear one of the secrets of where and what was actually going on, which I had already figured into the journey for everyone to discover.
So, it was left to Burstyn and her estranged children circling her green couch in a remote furniture store to, like the film’s audience, discover on their own the journey everyone is on?
Where mother’s going? I don’t think it was ever even in prep, ever really clear where mother was going for Ellen. She could imagine, but during rehearsals, during exercises we did each morning, she sort of discovered the symbol of where she was going. And as for Ewan, I don’t think he ever was very interested in knowing specifics. He was more interested in knowing the challenges David had to face. It’s funny. When you’re dealing with really good actors, they all have their methods, and Ellen Burstyn is a famous Method actor and Ewan McGregor, his excellence comes from shooting from the hip. And he’s in the moment.
Burstyn was always the Method actor and McGregor not so much?
As a Method actor, Ellen wanted to know everything, and Ewan didn’t want to know anything. So having them meet on set each morning caused this very natural friction between them, whereas mother was holding a lot of information, and Ewan was trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. And all I did was point the camera in their direction.
McGregor as David not knowing or wanting to know much about his surroundings worked to your advantage because at times a close-up had him asking with that head-scratching look who had just spoken, or at another point he’s suddenly alarmed at being threatened by a chainsaw-wielding owner of the furniture store, played by F. Murray Abraham?
That’s true. I call it misdirection. I think a powerful tool for directors is to actually misdirect, especially in an ensemble piece. I learned that while directing a lot of theater and being onstage a lot. If you give one direction to, say, F. Murray, who’s excellent in taking direction. And you don’t give any directions to someone like Ewan, or you give them very little direction, the chainsaw sequence suddenly becomes something believably true and really funny because Ewan reacts based on a direction he didn’t know or didn’t read into the script. So individual misdirections can do wonders, and I use this a lot, especially when directing Taylor. She received a lot more information, and also F. Murray because they were the caretakers. They knew a lot. But Ewan, I intentionally misdirected him. And the more confused Ewan was, the closer I got to him with the camera and the more interesting it becomes for the audience to follow. Because it is a confusing film. It’s a beautiful confusion. And if you don’t believe in the confusion out of Ewan’s expressions, then how can you connect to the film? You need to feel completely confused until you aren’t.
Out of such confusion has come a world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on the opening weekend. How do you feel about that luck?
To have my first feature film in a festival like Toronto, on the opening weekend, I couldn’t be more humbled and flattered. It’s one of those things that I’ve dreamt of my entire life. To be invited to a community of real filmmakers and real storytellers is truly magical. And especially in a festival like TIFF, where I’ve admired the film selection year after year, and I truly admire the way they dare to screen big audiences, big stories. No, it’s a real dream come true. It’s an honor. It’s a real honor. And I’m very excited to take part of the conversation afterwards and talk to people because even though it’s a big, bold and weird film, it’s also very intimate and personal.